By Phil Bourjaily
Pack several people with guns into a blind, add a dog, some mud, and a slick floor, and you can see why it's so important to emphasize safety during a duck hunt. Etiquette matters, too, because the polite thing to do is usually also the safe thing to do.
Here are 10 tips to keep you and your hunting partners safe and happy in the blind.
1. Have a Talk
The host is in charge, and it's his or her job to get everyone on the same page with a pre-hunt talk. Go over who is calling the shot and where the safe zones of fire are. Talk about whether hunters will take turns shooting, and whether you'll stand or sit to shoot. Make sure to mention any "house rules" concerning bands or anything else.
2. Practice Gun Safety
Leave guns empty until a minute or two before shooting time. There's no reason to add loaded guns to the confusion of settling into a dark blind. Stow your gear where it won't be underfoot. If there's no secure place to lean your gun, keep your hands on it. Don't touch the trigger until you actually want to shoot. Cold fingers, bulky clothes, and gloves can all cause you to accidentally fire the gun too soon.
3. Check Your Barrel
Be alert for barrel obstructions if you hunt in mud or snow. If you notice a strange-sounding report, unload the gun and check to make sure there's not a wad stuck in the barrel, even if the shot hit the bird. Bring a cleaning rod to the blind to clear muzzle obstructions.
4. Don't Mix Shells
Be sure you have the right ammo. With 20-gauge shotguns becoming more popular, there's an increased chance of mixing 12- and 20-gauge shells and causing a dangerous obstruction. Make sure you've got the right length shells too. A 3 1/2-inch shell can fit into a 3-inch chamber, and while it likely won't blow up the gun, it will stop the hunt while you pry out the empty.
5. Pay Attention to Your Muzzle
Always be aware of where your gun is pointed, and never swing it past anything you don't want to shoot. Last fall I shared a blind with a guy who turned around to fire at a mallard coming in from behind. After he missed twice and the duck crossed to our front, he swung his muzzle past my head and shot one more time. I had to duck and cover my ears to protect myself.
6. Know Your Zone of Fire
If everyone limits their shots to between 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock and straight overhead, you reduce the chances of everyone shooting the same bird. More important, you lower the risk of damaging your hunting partners' hearing if you swing too far left or right.
7. Control Your Dog
Every year I hear at least one story about a dog accidentally discharging a firearm. While dogs can inadvertently pull a trigger by stepping on it, they can't load guns. If you have to set your gun down, take out the shells. Also, keep your dog under control. A dog that runs around in the blind can knock guns over. If you have to tell someone else to put their dog up because it's causing problems, be diplomatic, but safety must always come first.
8. Hold Your Fire
When dogs or hunters are out in the decoys, keep your muzzle up and don't shoot. Dispatch any crippled birds before releasing the dog.
9. Mind the Shot Caller
Don't shoot until the shot caller says to shoot. If you see a bird you want to take a shot at, say a high bird over the top, ask, "Okay if I shoot this duck?" It's polite and safer, too, as people popping up to shoot unannounced can be dangerous.
10. Speak Up
If you see unsafe gun handling during the hunt, say something. Be firm but tactful, as it's embarrassing to get called out for unsafe gun handling. Regardless of their feelings, hunters who are a danger to the rest of the party need to be told what they're doing wrong and how to correct it.